Monthly Archives: December 2016

279. Introduction to A Winter’s Tale

My novel Valley of the Menhir starts with the coming of the Gods. An abbreviated version of this appears in 239. Morning of the Gods. Rem and Hea separate upon arrival. Rem begins to raise an army and sires a son, the Shambler, who will be the bane of his new world – and of Rem, himself. Hea, with the best of intentions, sets into motion forces she underestimates and soon cannot control.

In the world of the menhir, a soul, at death, is joined (enreithed) to a menhir, where it finds  both peace and a dissolution of individuality. The souls of those who die alone, or far from a menhir, shortly dissipate, dissolve, and cease to be. Every soul faces one fate or the other; there is no half-way state. There are no ghosts in the world of the menhir.


Hea has a problem. She has placed a geas of infertility on Rem’s rampant son and has hidden his only child from him, both without the Shambler’s knowledge. That hidden child has grown and sired two sons of his own. Hea has seen that the offspring of the next generation will be a force to save or destroy the world of the menhir. She does not know which. The unborn’s power clouds the runeboard, leaving her uncertain of what path to take.

The Shambler is driven out by his father, then returns to kill him and take control of the army he has raised. Now Hea has to act, but without a clear knowledge of what will result from her actions.

Hea does know that she cannot let the Shambler find out about his offspring. But to watch over them herself would, by her own presence, bring them to the Shambler’s attention. She makes a fatal compromise. She chooses to stand between the soul of a newly dead, Baralia, and her enreithment. Hea makes Baralia a tortured ghost — a soul hung half way between death and her final rest — and forces her to watch over Marquart, who will be the father of the coming nexus of power. It is a fatal error.

If Baralia cannot know peace while Marquart lives, then he will not live long.

            *             *

That’s a lot of narrative to densepack into the first eighteen pages of a manuscript. Marquart will be our main character until Tidac, his son, eclipses him in our affection.

We meet Marquart as he enters the Valley of the Menhir. The High King has given him lordship over the Valley, but he isn’t happy about it. He has been dismissed from service, and given this troublesome valley to rule. You’ll get the details over the next two weeks.

Marquart finds that another has taken his place as Lord of the Valley, subdues him handily, and makes a life-long enemy. No matter; he is quite capable of dealing with human enemies. The ghostly figure of Baralia, who will attach herself to him like his personal Iago, is another matter.

The story of Marquart’s first months in the Valley of the Menhir is A Winter Tale, driven by hunger for power, hunger for importance, and the sheer hunger of starvation. Marquart has inherited a land where there are not enough serfs to provide for the mass of useless nobles, and still have enough food for themselves. This is the first problem Marquart sets out to solve.

Normally all this would be presented in Serial, but Raven’s Run will have that side of the double blog tied of for some time yet. A Winter Tale will appear in A Writing Life through the first three weeks of January. 


Raven’s Run 69

I ran into Colin. He had traded his kilt for jeans and a tee shirt, and had a bottle of wine in his hand. He was visiting friends across the campground. We spoke briefly, as strangers probing for the possibility of friendship, then he invited me to join them.

It was the guitarist and singer I had talked to in Lausanne, David Jordan and Kristin Hansen.

David and Kristin had brought the ensolite pads out of their tent to lie on and she had her head in his lap. Colin dropped into lotus, slipping his feet up on top of his knees. I have never been able to do that. The best I can manage is a Cherokee squat. Colin handed out plastic cups and passed the wine around.  I poured an inch into mine and moistened my lips at the salude. Kristin slipped into the tent and came back with a candle in a fruit jar.

When I had met these three as strangers on the street, I had not told them why I was looking for Raven. Now I did. I had no reason for secrecy, and the time was right.

“So you have no idea where she has gone,” Kristin said.

“No, not really. In Paris, someone said Lausanne. In Lausanne, you said Montreaux.”

“Europe is a big place to search, with no better clues than that.”

“Tell me about it!”

“She might have come in after you checked the hostel in Montreaux.”

“I’ll call the woman I’m working with in the morning, and then make the rounds again.”

They were open and willing to help, but it was more from courtesy than any feeling for my problem. I was painfully aware of the difference in our ages. David and Kristin were barely twenty, off for the summer from some small college in England. Colin was little older. I was nearing thirty. It was a critical decade that stretched between them and me. I felt out of place and a little ridiculous sitting with them. Living close to the ground is something normally reserved for youth. A man my age should be in a suite, living off room service, and looking out at the lake over a manicured lawn, not squatting on his haunches in front of a tent with a fruit jar candle for ambiance. And not with the intention of crawling into a tiny nylon room to sleep in a bag of duck feathers. David and Kristin made me aware of the years between us. As I had felt out of place with Susyn last night, they made me feel out of place here.

I ignored the feeling. A man who lives by what others see in him, will have no freedom.

“Actually,” I said, “Eric is my only hope of finding her. If she were alone, she could go anywhere and do anything, but Eric will have to keep playing his fiddle for money, and that restricts their movements.”

David said, “Let me see his picture again.” I passed it over.  While David twisted it about in the candle’s faint light, I described his Hardanger fiddle. It was more distinctive than its player. David said, “The face looks familiar, and the fiddle clinches it. I saw your Eric several times last year when I was making the circuit alone, before I took up with Kristin.” more tomorrow

278. The Veil is Thin

Christmas, the most beloved holiday, has passed. Five days ago, the sun ended its southing and began its return, but still the days of darkness are upon us. The veil is thin between the worlds, and for a time, the order of things is turned upside down.

Now the calendar year is ending and there are festivals, but sometimes they don’t make sense because they have migrated beyond their origins. They grew up in one place, and are now celebrated in another. Christmas in Europe and America means snowmen and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Christmas in Australia means sunbathing, surfing, and a barbie on the beach. (That’s barbecue, not the excessively-skinny doll.)

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, full of New England foods like pumpkin pie, cranberries, and turkey. Right? Maybe. Under the microscope, it is exactly that. Looked at from a greater distance, it is one of a hemisphere-wide set of harvest festivals. This is not a global phenomenon, however. These festivals are tied to the temperate zone, where the cycle of the seasons rules all human life.

My interest in all this began with Christmas, but I came to realize that Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, New Year, St. Nicholas Day, Boxing Day, and a host of other holidays are all variations on the same theme.

There are three facets which these holidays share, in varying degrees. First is food, precious, and only temporarily abundant. Before Santa Claus and Walmart made Christmas a lynchpin of the economic system, gifts were small, and often consisted of food: apples, oranges, and cookies or other sweets.

You might remember from any of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol, that Bob Cratchit buys apples for his brood, while Tiny Tim wishes he could have oranges. Oranges were imported from the tropical realms of the British Empire and would only be found on the tables of the rich. In agricultural Europe, the harvest season filled the larders of the rich, but not so much the larders of the poor. With the onset of industrialization – the world of Bob Cratchit – this disparity became even more pronounced.

This is the second facet of these holidays, that those below beg or demand their share from those above — wassailing, often riotous, in the past — trick-or-treat today.

The third facet is the thinning of the veil between the worlds, with visitations from the dead. We don’t usually think of Christmas that way, but wait. The sub-title of A Christmas Carol is A Ghost Story of Christmas. And there are the four ghosts. Yes, four — don’t forget Marley, who says:

“It is required of every man . . . that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!’’

So mix and match to suit yourself, and you will see that all these holidays of fall and winter are defined by the same three facets.

          *           *

I polished my understanding of the interrelationship of the holidays during this last decade, but much earlier I understood to role of food and the onset of winter. Early in my writing career, I began the Menhir series, set in a realistic fantasy world where the hand of hunger lies heavy.

Midwinterfest was in a time of plenty. The tichan and cattle who were least valuable to the herds had been slaughtered as soon as the cold had set in reliably. Frozen carcasses hung in meatsheds all over the Valley – indeed, all over the Inner Kingdom. Hunger would come in late winter, as it always did.

The hardest months of winter are not the first, nor are the deepest the most cruel. As spring approaches, and the days lengthen, winter hangs on, well schooled in snow and ice and cold, and unwilling to relinquish its hold. Then, when the first green of spring is only a month away, comes the dying time.

An excerpt from that series, called Menhir: a winter’s tale, begins tomorrow.

Raven’s Run 68

Chapter Nineteen

Raven wasn’t in Montreaux. I hit the cheap hotels, the youth hostel, and found out that the only campground was two stops east by steamer. I reasoned that Eric would have too much pride to let Raven pay his way, so I decided not to worry about the more expensive places. I had to set some limits on my search.

The steamer passed the Château de Chillon, a lovely pile built out in the waters of Lac Léman, then moved on down to Villeneuve. It was a short walk to the campground, where the operator did not recognize either picture. It was nearing evening, so I took a place and pitched my tent. I walked around the campground, through the nearby parks, down by the lake, out onto the docks, and back to the steamer pier without seeing a familiar face.

The campground at Villeneuve was as beautiful a place as I could remember. The whole length of Lac Léman stretched westward toward the setting sun. High cirrus clouds were taking fire in an impossibly blue sky, above an impossibly blue lake. On either side of the lake and surrounding Villeneuve itself were huge rounded hills cloaked with intense green, and southeastward, dominating everything, were the snowy peaks of the main Alps.

As I approached the steamer pier, I heard bagpipes. It was Colin MacAdam, a street musician I had met in Paris, striding up and down in full kilt. He had a swatch of tartan spread over a cardboard box to collect the tourists’ money. I tossed in a few francs as he passed. He nodded without breaking rhythm. When he finished the piece he was playing, Colin grinned at me and said, “I haven’t seen them yet, Ian. I’ll keep looking and asking if you want.” I thanked him, scribbled the number of the consulate at Marseille on a piece of paper, and told him to ask for Will Hayden if he got any news.

He went back to work and I stayed for the pleasure of the pipes. They are an acquired taste. I probably would not have given them the repeated hearing it takes to accustom American ears to the drone and the strange intonation of the notes if I had not been interested in my own Scottish ancestry.

After Colin had finished his set, I went down to the docks near the campground. The sun was just setting. The sky was maroon and gold. The lambent light reflected off the varnished sailboats and painted golden reflections in the still waters. A mother duck had made a temporary home on one of the finger piers, with her brood of half-fletched young piled up around her. I said hello, but she only hissed a warning. I skirted them carefully to avoid disturbing them. I unlaced my boots and sat on the end of the pier, dangling my feet in the cold waters of Lac Léman while I watched the sky turn Prussian blue.

I wanted to reach out and take Raven’s hand, and share this beauty with her. At the same time, I felt a kind of bitter freedom.

I walked back to the campground. The tents were crowded together on a lovely, treeless lawn. Even here, where the beauty of nature was as wild and moving as any American national park, there was no thought of giving each camper a space of his own, and there were no campfires. European campgrounds are a Sunday picnic, not the Frontiersman conquering the wilderness. more tomorrow

277. Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
            Robert Frost

Both Dante’s inferno and a comment to Frost by astronomer Harlow Shapley are given as the inspiration for Frost’s poem. I’m in no position to argue with scholars, but for me it reeks of the North, of Up Helly Aa, of Bifrost and Valkyries, mead halls and winter warfare among Viking people.

Imagine yourself there, in your stave hall before the fire. Surrounded by your kinfolk, safe from the howling wind and deep frost outside your walls. Feasting on meat and mead.

Midwinter has come and gone. You have celebrated with bonfires. Now begins the long wait for spring, for the return of the absent sun.

It is a time for feasting, and for the telling of tales. Tales of Frost Giants and the Fenris Wolf. Tales of Odin sacrificing his eye for wisdom. In the great north, even the Gods live a harsh life. See him there in the corner, in the shadows near the roofbeam, just an image carved in swirling smoke, with Huginn and Muninn on either shoulder.

Old tales and new.

Agnar is speaking now. A third mead has loosened a tongue normally silent. He tells of last summer, of the fogs and waves and heaving seas, of cliffs towering black and high, wet with spume and crowned by the massed nests of fulmars. And of the soft coast, the green coast, the coast of Ireland where soft monks in black robes keep food and drink in quantity and spend their days illuminating manuscripts.

Look at the manuscript there, leaning against the wall at Dagmar’s elbow. Drawings of strange men tangled with curling letters that no one in the hall can read. Tales, no doubt, but of what value? Soft tales, by soft monks, without blood or fire.

The monks had no fire, no courage, but they had blood. Agnar and his men set that blood free to wet down the stones of their chapel. A short fight, and much treasure. Not much battle for a Viking’s tale, but sometimes it is good to tackle an easy foe.

Then Fannar raised his hand and hissed, and all fell silent. Fannar’s ears were legendary. He could hear a sword whispering from an oiled sheath, or a fur clad foot falling in a snowdrift.

They all heard, now, what Fannar had already heard. A thump and hiss, followed by another, and then a third. Soft. Almost like a clump of snow falling from a pine.

Or like torches falling on thatch.

There were no windows in the hall and only one door. They had told their tales and drunk their mead in darkness, lighted only by the hearthfire, but now it began to grow light as the thatch above began to glow, and to stare down at them with a hundred crimson eyes.

Then came the shout. Fifty voices if there was one; fifty strong male voices. In Agnar’s hall were nine men, and their women, and their children. The men leaped to their feet together and went weaving and staggering to take up their swords and axes. Hanne, Agnar’s younger wife bent double, placing her body between the child she was nursing and the burning thatch that now began to fall like rain.

Even if nine could win against fifty, the hall was burning. There would be no more shelter and no more food. It took the heart out of a man, and they screamed out their hatred to bring fire back to their blood, so they would not die soft, like the monks of summer.

Agnar threw open the door, axe in hand. Hanne crouched on the floor, protecting her infant a few seconds more, though her hair and clothing were afire.

Agnar plunged out into the frigid night. Hanne curled tighter around her daughter.

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

Take your choice.

Raven’s Run 67

I remembered one more incident with Raven. It was the afternoon we had climbed to the Monmarte, a few hours before we met Eric. We had entered the cathedral of Sacre Couer, and were sitting side by side. The roof was lost in shadow and the stained glass windows were rich with the light of afternoon. There were only a few tourists; they seldom get past Notre Dame. Most of the people coming and going were genuine worshippers. I watched one old woman as she entered, genuflected, and made her slow and painful way to an alter in a side chapel. She lit a candle and remained there on her knees for a time, then with equal slowness, came back past us and went back out into the world. It was a simple thing, repeated a thousand times a day in every cathedral in Europe, but it touched me.

Raven gave me an odd look as I wiped my eyes and made a deprecating mouth. We had never talked about religion. I asked, “Are you Catholic?”

“Sort of. I go a few times a year, and I feel a little guilty that I don’t go more often. I don’t think about it much. You?”

I shook my head. “Protestant background. Fire and brimstone Baptist, to be exact. My folks would give me hell for even being in a Catholic cathedral. I stopped believing a long time ago, but I think about it a lot.”


“Because I don’t have a superstructure of priests to do my thinking for me.”

She was silent for a while. I thought I had offended her. I could have added that Reverend Billy Thompson had been as willing to do the thinking for his Baptist congregation as any Catholic priest ever could be. But that wasn’t what was on her mind. She finally said, “Doesn’t it scare you?”


“So why don’t you go back?”

“Faith isn’t something you can turn off and on. When it’s gone, it’s just gone.”

“Don’t you ever think maybe you’re wrong?”

I shook my head.

“Just like that?”

I shrugged.

“And when you die?”

“I just die.”

“I couldn’t live like that.”

“I wouldn’t want you to. I don’t try to talk people into thinking my way. It’s much more comfortable to believe in God.”

“Don’t you ever miss it – miss Him?”

I shuffled the words around in my mind to get them just right. It was something I didn’t want Raven to misunderstand.

“What I miss,” I said, “isn’t the assurance or the comfort. Not any more. That’s what a kid misses. What I miss is . . . like this: I go out in the evening and I’m alone and I see a beautiful sunset. The clouds are on fire and the sky is so blue it’s almost green. It is so beautiful it makes me hurt and I just want to look up and say, ‘Thank you.’ But there’s no one to say it to. That’s what I really miss. Having someone to say ‘thank you’ to.”

#          #          #

The steamer was pulling into Montreaux. The other passengers were gathering up their baggage. I dropped my feet from the rail and slipped my arms into the packs traps.

I could still see Raven’s face as it had looked there in Sacre Coeur. It was as if she had stepped back three paces while sitting still. Her body was still there, but in her mind, she had gone far away.

Just like she had gone away, completely away, two mornings later. There was a connection between the two events. I could feel the connection, but I could not define it. And unless I did, she was lost to me forever. I might find her, warn her, and save her from the assailants who had attacked her, but unless I unlocked the greater puzzle of Raven herself, I would never hold her in my arms again. more tomorrow

276. Wild Parties Never End

154px-uphellyaa7anneburgess30jan1973Wild parties never end, they just get organized. And maybe slightly domesticated. Consider Mardi Gras. Better still, consider Up Helly Aa.

It is said that fishermen can never get far enough north. Fishermen from Indiana go to Michigan. Fishermen from Michigan go to Ontario. Fishermen from Ontario head for the Arctic.

I found the same thing to be true when I visited Scotland. The first trip I made it north to Caithness. The second trip I made it to the Orkneys. Eventually I made it to Shetland, and once there I worked my way up to the northernmost point on the British Isles.

I didn’t see Up Helly Aa. It comes the last Tuesday in January, and in January I will always be in California, not standing in the wind off the pack ice. But I wouldn’t mind beaming in, watching the festivities, then beaming back before my liver froze.

Up Helly Aa is a relatively new celebration of the end of the Christmas season, mixed with a revival of old Viking themes. As early as 1824, on Christmas eve, a diarist recorded:

the whole town (of Lerwick, Shetland’s capital) was in an uproar; from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.

If you followed the posts on The Battle for Christmas, this will sound very familiar. Christmas has been domesticated since this report, but the spirit of riot is well represented in Up Helly Aa.

It began as “tar-barreling”. Mobs of masked young men dragged barrels of burning tar through the streets of Lerwick, often colliding with other mobs, and clogging the narrow streets of the town as they made their way toward the harbor. Sober citizens were not amused. The Town Council appointed constables to keep things in check.

About 1870, the participants themselves began to change the proceedings. They invented the name Up Helly Aa, began a torchlight procession, and introduced ‘guizing – going in disguise. Soon Viking themes became common. By the 1880, Viking longships were being dragged through the streets instead of flaming tar barrels, and the ‘guizer Jarl (Jarl is the Viking equivalent of Earl) had become master of ceremonies.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know that dead Viking chiefs were put on their longships, and the ships burned? That’s what happens in modern Up Helly Aa. The purpose-built longship is dragged by torchlight, by masses of young men in Viking costume, down through he narrow streets to the harbor where the torches are all tossed aboard for the fiery finale.

Then the drinking starts in earnest. Who wouldn’t love that?

The day after Up Helly Aa is an official holiday so everyone can recover.